THE BROOKLYN EAGLE

By Samuel Newhouse

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — The public rarely has any sympathy for Brooklyn parents who lose their children to the city for accusations of neglect.  But one Brooklyn legal organization is dedicated to fiercely advocating on behalf of impoverished parents who are in danger of losing their children… Lauren Shapiro [is] director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project. “Our clients, first of all, they’re poor. The system is totally stacked against them. Everybody in the system is telling them that they’re a bad parent. … A lot of our cases are just about poverty.”

.... BFDP has about 1,500 open cases, which take on average two years to complete, with children in foster care in half of them and at home in the rest.  In half of BFDP’s cases, there’s a finding of neglect either admitted or at trial, so BFDP staff work closely with parents to find new sources of financial support or welfare to improve their home situation.  “Sometimes there’s a finding of neglect, and it doesn’t mean they’re not great parents,” Shapiro said. “We make unbelievable strides with people. Every parent comes in with incredible problems. … Our practice is built on a belief that people can change.”  BFDP attorneys don’t lightly use the term “neglect;” instead, they talk about “obstacles” to good parenting faced by their clients.  Losing custody is one of these obstacles, which violates what Shapiro called a family’s constitutional right to due process and family integrity that is violated by having the children taken out of the home by the state.  “A lot of people in Family Court feel, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with letting someone come every few weeks and check the closets?’” Shapiro said. “But if ACS is coming to the home every day, there’s no question that that implicates their due process rights.”

.... Leveling the playing field for low-income parents is what drives Shapiro and her staff of attorneys.  “What makes us really unique is that our attorneys are doing this all out of a deep commitment to working with poor people,” Shapiro said. “To give them a really good lawyer, I think that means a lot to our clients. They get a team — an attorney, a parent advocate, a law student and our administrative team. It’s a statement. Somebody cares about them in Family Court.”

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